Unrelatability bogs down Umrigar’s latest



Where is the line between selflessness and selfishness drawn? In her upcoming novel, “The Weight of Heaven,” Thrity Umrigar seeks to raise tough questions of morality, mainly the classic-made-cliché, “How far will a man go for the safety and happiness of his loved ones?” This question is at the forefront of the novel, framed by a lyrical attention to detail. But beneath that lies the question for the reader: does the main character act upon love or selfishness?

Frank and Ellie Benton are two Americans who moved to a small town in India after the sudden and tragic death of their son, Benny. Frank is heading up the Indian branch of an American drug company. The company harvests the leaves of a local tree, using them to make diabetes medication. The house given to them by the company includes a family of servants that live on the grounds: Prakash, Edna and their precocious son, Ramesh. Feeling the loss of his beloved son, Frank takes Ramesh under his wing to protect him from the poverty and alcoholism of his father.

The story is told mainly through Ellie and Frank’s point of view and the omniscient narrative is greatly affected by their thoughts and emotions. Thus, rather than looking at these questions of morality subjectively, the narrative sympathizes with their decisions. An audience can commiserate easily with tragic heroes like Macbeth or King Lear because the characters possess a realistically human feeling like guilt or fear. There is a point of recognition for the wrongs they’ve done. However, in “Weight,” the characters are defensive until the bitter end and the reader feels no sympathy.

Frank formulates a drastic plan to take Ramesh to America because he believes it will be best for Ramesh’s future. But early in the novel, we learn that Frank needs Ramesh more than Ramesh needs him. Even in his relationship with his wife, “. Ramesh would liven things up. There would be no room for silences, for strained conversations, for deliberate avoidance of subjects that could trigger sad memories.” It is because of this selfishness and the main character’s failure to recognize it that the reader is unable to relate to him.

With a title like “The Weight of Heaven” one expects the novel to be rife with raw emotion surrounding a deeply moving plot. It contains a weighty plot but it fails to support that weight, leaving it to crumble indifferently to the ground.